Well, if this isn’t the oddest release schedule ever. We have three new movies coming out this weekend (four if you count limited releases) and two of them already in theaters, those being Happy Death Day 2U and Isn’t it Romantic. The third major release is that of Alita: Battle Angel, being released today to coincide with (and potentially steal away) some of the Valentine’s Day audience. That makes for three films with at least a 5-Day opening weekend frame (6-Day in the case of the formers), making for the oddest release schedule we’ve seen since Christmas with Mary Poppins Returns and its 7-DAY OPENING WEEKEND (I’m still not over that).
What makes this all the more interesting in the fact that, aside from Isn’t it Romantic, these movies aren’t what you would typically call Valentine’s Day fare, at least not overtly. Happy Death Day 2U is the sequel to the surprise slasher hit from two years ago while Alita is the long-anticipated adaptation of the beloved manga, Battle Angel Alita. Even Isn’t it Romantic‘s premise looks to skewer Valentine’s Day and romantic comedies in general, so it all amounts to is a pretty odd crop of Valentine’s Day movie offerings. Further proof of this is in their box office, which is not projected to be amazing this coming weekend. While there is certainly break-out potential, I wouldn’t necessarily bet money on it.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the movie that is actually looking to perform the best this weekend is the resident slasher flick, Happy Death Day 2U. As mentioned above, it is the sequel to 2017’s Happy Death Day which took audiences very much by surprise back when it debuted. Billed as “Groundhog Day meets Scream“, Happy Death Day told the story of Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, a college student who, after waking up in a stranger’s dorm room after a drunken night, goes off into the day to celebrate her birthday with her sorority sisters only to be murdered that very night. In a surprise turn of events, Tree suddenly wakes up back in the dorm room she woke up in that morning and realizes that she is now caught in a time loop and must unmask her killer if she is to escape. At first glance, the premise must sound a bit wacky, feeling both interestingly fresh and thoroughly familiar at the same time. This gave the film a pretty strong curiosity factor, and thanks to good execution and a breakout performance from star Jessica Rothe, the movie saw not only great reviews but also great box office. Happy Death Day was an immediate hit with an opening weekend gross of $26 million giving way to a worldwide haul of $125 million, all on a mere $4.8 million budget. Talk of a sequel was bound to arise quick, and with the announcement that said sequel, cheekily titled Happy Death Day 2U, was to be released for Valentine’s Day weekend, fans were buzzing.
Fast-forward to today, and we now have our best contender for a true success this Valentine’s Day/President’s Day Weekend (that’s quite the holiday mash-up). Once again, the film has a low budget (upped to $9 million this time around) and is actually set to do the best out of the newcomers. Its 3-Day opening is indeed looking to be a downgrade from the original with a likely $18 million rather than an opening around $25 million, but this is actually to be expected given that a sequel was, in all likelihood, never actually planned, rather being a direct product of the unprecedented success of the original. The original story wrapped up neatly and as a result, any new film to come after was more than likely to feel tacked on and forced. Sure enough, this is reflected in the reviews for the film. To its credit, they are not bad, much stronger than what is to be expected for a sequel like this with a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 58 on Metacritic. They are still middling though, frequently calling out the film for not being as “fresh” as the original (somewhere, The Lego Movie 2 just shuddered at the mention of the word “fresh”). That said, Happy Death Day 2U is primed to do good business. It is a sequel to a film that was well received in its debut and which features much of the original cast returning. The reviews for this entry are still generally positive, and the film is very female-friendly, being fronted by a dynamic and funny lead in Jessica Rothe, so I would not be surprised to hear that this film is the Valentine’s Day pick for a lot of moviegoers, be it couples or singletons, despite having seemingly no Valentine’s Say theming at all. Having already opened yesterday and pulled in about $1 million (healthy for a for a film on a Wednesday), projections actually see the film making $25 million (much closer to the original) over the course of the 6-Day frame, which would be great start for the picture; and with a more than $18 million gross in the 3-Day frame, Universal is set for a solid profit.
Now, Happy Death Day 2U does have a challenger in the genre space this weekend in the form of Alita: Battle Angel. Based on the acclaimed manga from 1990, the adaptation has been in the works for quite a while, with James Cameron and Jon Landau having been attached as producers since 2003. Cameron was originally slated to direct, however, he put the project on the back burner in 2005 when he began to focus on Avatar. In the wake of that film’s success in 2009, several sequels were announced and put into development, thus Alita was further pushed back. It wasn’t until May of 2016 that pre-production on the film began in earnest and casting was underway. Cameron stepped back from directing, handing the job over to Robert Rodriguez, but stayed on as producer and screenwriter. After a lengthy production involving lots of CGI and motion capture as well as well as two release date changes (in total the film was pushed back a full year), Alita is officially being released this weekend for…Valentine’s Day?
Telling a Pinnochio-like tale of a cyborg girl, the titular Alita (played by the highly underrated Rosa Salazar), searching desperately to discover who she really is in a dystopia future, Alita doesn’t really strike one as a Valentine’s Day release. While the marketing has made it clear that there is a romantic subplot involving Alita and a human boy named Hugo (newcomer Keean Johnson), the movie seems to be much more concerned with existential questions about identity as well as visually striking cyberpunk action set pieces. Clearly, not many people seem to think that Alita is a good fit with Valentine’s day either given how low its projections are coming in. Most pundits are forecasting a 5-Day weekend gross of around $22 million, thus suggesting a 3-Day weekend gross of about $15-$16 million, neither of which suggest a good outlook for the film which is reportedly carrying a $150-$200 million budget (some pundits are even suggesting that the budget is actually more around $237 million). This isn’t incredibly surprising given that the film was in development for so long and makes use of very advanced motion technology for many of the characters, particularly Salazar’s Alita. In any case, an opening of $22 million is not at all a good start for the picture.
So does Alita have anything going for it? Honestly, it is hard to say. It’s very position in the release schedule is immediately a problem give just how little it would seem (to audiences) to have anything to do with Valentine’s Day. The film was originally set to come out during February of last year before it was moved to December. It was then moved once again to its current release date (no doubt as the result of a crowded Christmas market as well as complications from the impending Disney/Fox acquisition), however, the more I think about, the more I think that it probably should have stayed as a December release. James Cameron’s Avatar was a December release and shares a lot in common with Alita given their respective use of advanced technology through their productions and high budgets. Both films were also, despite some more mature elements, rated PG-13 and thus had a broader, more family-oriented appeal; a factor which undoubtedly helped Avatar to pull in the family audience during the Christmas season with its high budget spectacle. Thanks to its December release, it was also able to start off slow and then build its audience as it continued its run, eventually propelling it to become the highest grossing film of all time. Alita likely will not be as successful as Avatar was ten years ago, but given their similarities, perhaps positioning the film like its predecessor would have put in the best possible position for success.
Now, despite everything that Alita has going against it (bad positioning, an enormous budget, not really any bankable stars in principal roles, etc…), I do believe that of the three major releases this weekend, Alita does have the most breakout potential. First an foremost, I think that its 3-day projections are slightly off. Looking back at live-action adaptations of anime and manga properties, one can find a pretty distinct pattern. When looking at the most recent anime and manga properties to grace the silver screen with American adaptations, one will find both Ghost in the Shell, the 2017 adaptation starring Scarlett Johannsen, and Speed Racer from 2008. While seemingly disparate at first, looking more closely shows us that both properties are similar to Alita in that they feature pretty extensive worldbuilding and use of more advanced technology, with Ghost in the Shell, in particular, relating directly to Alita with its themes of identity, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence. Moreover, both Ghost in the Shell and Speed Racer opened to grosses of $18.6 million and $18.5 million, respectively. If one is to broaden their search even more to find another foreign, comic book-like style property adaptation with a similar level of worldbuilding to Alita, one would also find Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which also opened in 2017 and grossed $17 million, thus fitting within that opening weekend range and showing the size of the audience that would be interested in a property like this. As a result of these findings, I am inclined to think that Alita will open at least a little better than it is projected to in the 3-Day frame with somewhere around $18 million; not a huge boost, but a boost nonetheless.
Alita also has potential when you look at its critical reception. Like with its opening, this is not potential that one would see at first glance, given its 60% on Rotten Tomatoes (just barely a fresh rating) and 53 on Metacritic. However, when you take into account where Alita started out (with a Rotten Tomatoes score in the mid-50s), a positive trend emerges. Reviews for Alita are still going to be thoroughly mixed no matter what happens. However, the film is receiving praise. While criticism has been leveled at the film for convoluted writing and for trying to set up several sequels, much praise has been given for the film’s level of worldbuilding, action sequences, visual effects, and performances, particularly that of Rosa Salazar in the lead role. Overall, the film’s positive trending reviews signal that people do genuinely enjoy the film; and with it coming out over the long weekend, it has the potential to pull in viewers if the word-of-mouth is even just moderate. The film is still cruising toward $22 million over the 5-Day frame, but if it can over-index in the 3-Day, as I expect it will, it actually might overperform in the long run. For that possibility alone, I think Alita is worth keeping an eye on.
The final new major release of the weekend and the one slated to do the worst of the three is Isn’t it Romantic, which is highly ironic given that it is the only truly romantically-themed release this weekend. Any other year, I would call this a slam dunk as any film with even a modicum of Valentine’s Day theming in just the advertising alone tends to do really good business during this weekend. Looking back at years past, the last few years have been dominated by the Fifty Shades franchise, with every installment being released on Valentine’s weekend. While the films do not necessarily deal directly with Valentine’s Day, their sexual (I hesitate to use the word “romantic”) nature makes them prime candidates for said release date, which Universal, in turn, always took advantage of in their advertising in order to make sure that whether you were single or in a relationship, Fifty Shades of Grey was going to be your Valentine’s Day night out. Sure enough, it worked, as four years after the release of the original, the Fifty Shades franchise has grossed a combined total of over $1.3 billion in box office revenue. Other notable Valentine’s Day mega-hits include the first Deadpool movie, whose marketing was cheekily themed around Valentine’s Day and ended up grossing $132 million upon its debut; but even outside of Valentine’s Day blockbusters, even just mid-budget romance films have always been able to do solid business, usually grossing at least $20 million upon opening weekend. And yet, here comes Isn’t it Romantic with only a projected $15-$17 million debut.
At the very least, no one can say that Warner Bros. didn’t package this film well. Isn’t it Romantic features a fun premise (a woman who hates romantic comedies bumps her head and wakes up to find herself living inside a”PG-13 Romantic Comedy Universe”), a witty script, a game cast filled with reputable comedians and pretty faces, and a likable star in the always hilarious Rebel Wilson (who, on a side note, is actual having a bit of a career renaissance now that the Pitch Perfect series has come to a close, with not only Isn’t it Romantic but also MGM’s gender-flipped Dirty Rotten Scoundrels remake, The Hustle, on the horizon and her having been recently cast in Universal’s upcoming adaptation of Cats). Any other year, this would be a hit, but it simply seems to be drowning in a sea of competition. With many of the studio having dated their films outside of January for fear that Glass was going to be a major threat (look how that turned out), February is experiencing a bit of a bottleneck that is kind of choking the films that were truly meant to be released here. Isn’t it Romantic, for all it has going for it (the reviews are solid, and it did manage a pretty good gross of $1.8 million when it opened yesterday), is being put at a disadvantage here by having to compete with high budget and returning film properties.
Warner Bros. is clearly nervous about its prospects given that it was recently revealed that the studio has sold Isn’t it Romantic‘s international distribution rights to Netflix. As a result, the film will not play in theaters anywhere outside of the US and Canada, likely lowering the film’s net budget but also cutting off any potential revenue from foreign countries (a surprising decision given that both Rebel Wilson and her co-star, Liam Hemsworth, are Australian and could potentially pull in some money for the film in their native country). Now, Isn’t it Romantic does have an ace up its sleeve in that it is truly the only “romantic” film in theaters this weekend. While this will make for a short shelf-life in theaters post-Valentine’s weekend, the film could easily surge at the box office today which would boost its overall gross and potentially lure more viewers in over the weekend. At the moment, $16 million in the 3-Day frame seems reasonable given that last year’s I Feel Pretty, which bears a similar premise to Isn’t it Romantic, opened with that as well. However, if people like the film enough tonight, word-of-mouth could push its projected 6-Day total of $20 million to something around $25 million, which would be a pretty good start for the feature.
In the end, this weekend is looking at a combination of bad timing, missed opportunities, and overcrowding. Valentine’s Day weekend generally makes for a pretty great time at the movies where well-positioned films are able to do quite nicely for themselves. However, a variety of factors have led to studios booking the weekend rather poorly and stifling out most of the potential for a break hit. That said, there is still room a real contender to emerge from amongst these major releases, and I am eager to see who will step up to the plate.